By Joseph Hurley
A particularly powerful impact on Irish-oriented theater in New York City this year was made by a modest woman from the Yorkshire city of Bradford, a graduate of the London School of Economics, a woman who had majored in politics as well as economics, and thought for a time that her future might lie in politics.
In a sense, considering the nature of the two productions that arrived in New York imported directly from Belfast, the life of Pam Brighton is deeply, even permanently, rooted in the realm of politics, with particular emphasis on healing, conciliatory politics.
"A Night in November," playwright Marie Jones’s one-actor play starring Dan Gordon, like Brighton and the author a Protestant and a resident of Belfast, closed recently at Theatre Row’s Douglas Fairbanks Theatre, in preparation for a tour beginning almost immediately.
In Jones’s compassionate, funny and frequently moving work, an ordinary Belfast civil servant makes a long and difficult personal journey from benign prejudice to enlightened understanding, an accomplishment made all the more powerful for its having been done with roaring good humor and virtually no signs of preachment.
"Binlids," a sort of street-level semi-documentary, involved director Brighton from its very inception, along with playwright Jones and the Belfast-based theater company the two women founded about a decade ago, DubbelJoint.
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That perhaps immediately perplexing name, DubbelJoint, carefully examined, indicates the admirable aims for which Brighton and Jones created it, containing as it does the first syllables of Ireland’s two great cities, Dublin in the South and Belfast in the North. The partners’ goal was a new and intensified ecumenism in the theaters of Ireland, with the clear belief that the spirit of tolerance in which DubbelJoint was born could extend to the greater world beyond the walls of the playhouses where the group’s work would be seen.
"Binlids," whose title refers to the sounds made by the women of West Belfast who beat garbage can covers against the sidewalks in order to give warning when British troops were in the streets, was an ambitious and massive enterprise for which Pam Brighton and a small group of dedicated sponsors, led by Boston attorney Arthur McCabe, brought a company of 28 actors and technicians, many of whom had never before been outside Northern Ireland, to New York for a three-week run at the Angel Orensanz Foundation Center for the Arts, on Norfolk Street on the Lower East Side.
"Binlids" finished its run at the Center on Oct. 23.
In a Soho hotel within walking distance of Norfolk Street, Brighton talked recently about the overwhelmingly positive experience "Binlids" had been.
"You wouldn’t believe how much stuff they bought," she said, smiling as she pondered the splendid time her performers had had in the city, and the essentially favorable response with which "Binlids" had been received, despite the location of the space in which it played, a venue off the beaten track for most New York theatergoers.
Brighton admitted to an early and ongoing interest in the theater. "I was always interested in it," she said, "although I had no real idea of what you did or how you go into it. I joined the drama society at the London School of Economics, and then I did a lot of small jobs around the theater in London, but nothing major."
Brighton’s solution was one that some people might find radical. She went to law school and became a barrister.
"That took two years," she said, "starting in about 1985. I went to Central London Polytechnic and then to bar school for a year. It was all very quick, which was one of the things that appealed to me about it.
The move to Belfast
After practicing law for two-and-a-half years, Brighton made the move that led to the life she’s leading at present.
"I happened to be reading the paper one day and I saw a job opportunity in Belfast and I decided to try for it," she said.
That job was to be head of radio drama for the BBC in Belfast and Brighton got it, despite the fact that she had no radio experience.
"I’d done some television," she said, "but mainly I was curious." That was nine years ago, and the move to Northern Ireland changed Brighton’s life in ways she could very probably never have predicted.
Brighton met Marie Jones almost as soon as she began working in Belfast, at which point the author of "A Night in November" was part of a women’s theatrical collective called Charabanc.
"They asked me to do their first play," she said. "I ended up doing three. Marie Jones was primarily an actress then, but she had started writing. Among the first things we did was a play of hers called ‘Stones in His Pocket,’ which had to do with the movie industry."
Nowadays, DubbelJoint stages its productions in what was once St. Thomas’ School.
"Basically," she said, "it’s a case of converting an old hall into a theater each time. When we’re not using it, it’s called the Belfast Institute of Further and Higher Education. It’s in the White Rock Road in West Belfast."
The typical DubbelJoint production tours, plays Belfast, probably plays Dublin, and, with a little luck, London as well. This was the pattern followed by, among other of the group’s shows, most of them controversial in one way or another. "Women on the Verge of H.R.T." Those letters refer to "Hormone Replacement Therapy."
"We toured that one for 10 weeks," Brighton recalled, "We sold out every single night. That time we ended up in the Belfast Opera House. The singer Daniel O’Donnell was with us for that one. We played the Gaiety in Dublin and then went to London with it."
DubbelJoint was founded in part because Brighton and Jones wanted to find a situation in which they could work together on a more or less regular basis.
"Also," Brighton added, "there was no really strong theater coming out of Belfast at all. We thought it would be good for Ireland if theater originated in Belfast and not just in Dublin, and we wanted to tour the whole island. Then, too, we wanted to do plays from a nationalist point of view and perform them in nationalist communities. DubbelJoint tours into areas that I think no other theater in Ireland visits."
In searching out even the smallest, most remote places to which to bring their work, the DubbelJoint team had some unforgettable experiences.
"I remember a trip we made to a place called Cole Island," Brighton said. "It’s in County Tyrone. We went there first with ‘A Night in November,’ and later on we took ‘The Government Inspector’ there and played before 900 people who, I’m convinced, had never seen live theater before."
"Just a Prisoner’s Wife"
"Binlids" grew out of an earlier, smaller DubbelJoint production called "Just a Prisoner’s Wife," a venture which involved just four performers, all of them female. That production was accused here and there of sectarianism, a charge Brighton doesn’t entirely deny.
"We try to be fair," she said, "but my position is that the other side is heard everywhere. It’s heard in most of the press. It’s heard on most news outlets. It’s heard everywhere. But we do try to reflect both sides. In ‘Binlids’ we tried particularly hard."
When "Just a Prisoner’s Wife" evolved into the much more ambitious "Binlids," the team was careful to make sure that every word spoken by loyalist forces was something that stood as a matter of public record. Also, in particular, they tried to make sure that the young British soldiers in the play were depicted as innocents trapped in a situation not of their own making. Brighton has, however, strong convictions in this area.
"I think the very nature of political theater is that you have something in the way of a political analysis," the director said. "If you have one, then you have some sense of what the causes of the problems are, and that sense must be present on the stage."
Powerful convictions are everywhere on the stage when "Binlids" is being performed, since, after all, most of the players are ordinary people who have lived through the events they are recreating before an audience.
When "Just a Prisoner’s Wife" grew into "Binlids," it was necessary to add male, professional actors to the company. It may have seemed possible, potentially at least, that the presence of professionals might have proved intimidating to the amateur performers. This turned out not to be the case.
"Not at all," Pam Brighton said. "If anything, I’d say it was the other way around."